The biggest play Fred VanVleet made on the night he set a career mark for scoring came on defence and with the game in the balance.
VanVleet’s defence was his cut as he carved his way into an essential services role with the Toronto Raptors as an undersized, undrafted free agent out of Wichita State.
But his offensive profile has been growing steadily. The Raptors’ Monday afternoon 107-103 win over the Miami Heat put an exclamation point on it as Toronto improved to 2-0 in their reseeding games and maintained a four-game lead over the Boston Celtics for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
VanVleet not only put up a career-high 36 points, he put up three more than his friend and rival Kyle Lowry did in the Raptors win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night.
“That’s a double whammy right there, I’ll take that,” said VanVleet.
It’s been coming. It was his scoring burst (after a gruelling slump) that helped the Raptors get over the hump on the way to the NBA Finals last season and earned VanVleet a Finals MVP vote along the way.
And in the absence of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from last year’s championship team, VanVleet stepped into the starting lineup and saw his scoring average jump from just over 11 points a game to 17.5 while setting a career-high mark in assists.
And as VanVleet began heating up against Miami — after putting 13 in the first half to help the Raptors to a 48-44 lead he exploded for 18 in the third quarter — the Heat began to send double-teams at him to force him to give up the ball, paying him the ultimate NBA compliment.
But even after going 7-of-12 from deep and a perfect 13-of-13 from the free throw line — top marks for both free throws made and attempted — it was VanVleet’s hard-to-quantify but never-to-be-under-estimated contributions as a defender that were unavoidable talking points.
The key play came with less than 10 seconds left, the Heat with the ball and the Raptors trying to nurse a two-point lead, and it was classic VanVleet who has mastered the art of being in two places at once and usually well before the opposition.
Guarding the Heat’s Goran Dragic away from the ball, VanVleet is at the bottom of the defence directing traffic as Miami’s sideline out-of-bounds play unfolds.
The first pass is to the Heat’s Jae Crowder who immediately drops the ball into Jimmy Butler, who at six-foot-six in theory should have a mismatch in the post against Kyle Lowry.
The Raptors’ six-time all-star can usually handle himself in the post no matter how much size he’s giving up, but just in case VanVleet briefly directs his attention Lowry’s way to make sure that Butler doesn’t manage to spin baseline on his teammate.
In that moment VanVleet’s man — Goran Dragic — floats up the lane to set a back screen for Crowder on Raptors centre Marc Gasol, potentially freeing up the Heat high-flyer for a lob.
At this point VanVleet has a decision to make — all good NBA plays are predicated on defenders being forced to make choices and punishing then when they make the wrong one.
Which is why VanVleet is such a great defensive player — he almost never makes the wrong decision.
It’s been his trademark since he was an over-achieving, under-recruited high school star in Rockford, Ill., which he carried with him as an over-achieving under-scouted college star at Wichita State. And it has been the key to him thriving in the NBA as a six-foot point guard who doesn’t jump well and doesn’t even seem that fast — the only conceivable reason he wasn’t drafted.
VanVleet thinks fast while moving just as fast as he needs to and that makes all the difference in the world.
“I think what makes it unique is this, he doesn’t look very fast out there, right?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who has come to rely on VanVleet’s ability to decipher everything around him in real time. “He doesn’t move up and down the court that fast, but his lateral side-to-side speed and the way he can move his feet is incredible, and it’s deceiving because you’re kind of seeing him bring the ball up the floor, running up the floor or whatever and you think well, he’s not that athletic or fast or quick or anything, but his side-to-side athleticism is outstanding, that’s why he can get into the ball, and he can kind of use his torso to stay in front of people, and that kind of stuff. And then… he’s just got great IQ, he anticipates, he’s a step ahead sometimes.”
A great defender might be born but even at the NBA level it normally takes time for the ability to read plays to catch up with the required knowledge. Lots of players — even good ones — never get there. VanVleet seemed to figure it out halfway through training camp in his rookie year.
“He’s played great at every level, it just took him a moment to learn the defence in the NBA… the terminology, and where you’re supposed to be and all that kind of stuff, but I would just say he probably plays beyond his years in the league because of his IQ,” Nurse said.
It was all on display as VanVleet stymied what would have been the tying score to conclude a comeback from what had been a 15-point lead built when VanVleet was on fire in the third.
On the key defensive stop, the key moment comes after Dragic sets the screen and Crowder starts running for the rim. VanVleet turns his attention from Lowry and Butler and takes one hard step to his left.
It’s almost nothing in the scheme of things but it’s just enough to give Gasol the blink he needs to get a better angle on Crowder and erase the lob threat.
More importantly, VanVleet’s hard step briefly creates the illusion that Dragic is going to be open after he sets the screen and rolls to the basket.
Butler buys into the mirage and tries to hit Dragic with a bounce pass for what would be a game-tying lay-up.
But VanVleet is way ahead of him. After faking toward Crowder he slides back across the lane and gets his body in front of Dragic while getting his right hand in on Butler’s pass before Dragic can get his two hands on it.
Steal, turnover, game over.
VanVleet may have covered the equivalent ground area of an old-fashioned phone booth but in doing so he accounted for two Heat threats and helped out on a third, all in the space have about three seconds.
It required smarts, confidence and awareness and his teammates have come to rely on it. Even on a night when VanVleet was dropping bombs from deep and pumping up his point totals his defensive awareness was what won the game and what he takes pride in most.
“…I was never the most outspoken guy coming in just because I didn’t know how people would receive it when I wasn’t playing, but now that I’m playing big minutes I think guys are respecting my voice and I’m seeing things, I’m talking to coaches before the games, during the games, and just trying to anchor, [the defence],” said VanVleet who is still in his fourth season, even if it feels like he’s been in the NBA for a decade.
“…Staying locked in is probably my favourite thing that I do and it gets the least amount of credit, so it’s a fun job to have knowing that my teammates can follow me on that side of the floor.”
It’s a fun job and he’s great at it. The career-high 36 isn’t bad either.